The following is from the introduction to the special issue, LIFE: A Story of America in 100 Photographs, which is available here.
A great photograph tells not one story but many, through what it plainly reveals and what it suggests. And great photographers—like great artists, writers, carpenters, farmers, clergy, all—see beyond the limitations of their talent, beyond their resources, to something more. “Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential,” the LIFE photojournalist W. Eugene Smith once observed. “Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I am on the threshold.”
Two of Smith’s photographs (Country Doctor, Burning Cross) appear in LIFE, A Story of America in 100 Photographs. Dozens of the others were taken by his colleagues and peers. Indeed, all of the photos in this story have appeared in the magazine or book or website pages of LIFE, which has long been a chronicler of American life. The images trace back to 1850 (soon after the dawn of photography itself, and shortly before the United States was solidified into the Union (as we know it now) and continue, with gorgeous and colorful aplomb, into the 21st century. They are delivered here throughout the decades, each image augmented by a body of text, a story in words and facts meant to add context and understanding, meant to illuminate more than to guide.
If a single photo—and the sentences nestled beside it—carries so many strands of meaning, then so does a collection of photos, bearing a narrative that is at once available in discreet pieces and as a whole. This collection. This narrative. The U.S. flag adds a 49th star. Moving trucks fill suburban driveways. Route 66 invites travelers west. Disneyland opens. John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline attend his inaugural ball. Marines in Vietnam carry off wounded comrades. A busboy kneels by the fallen Robert F. Kennedy.
It has been said that you don’t take a photograph, you simply borrow it, nabbing a bit of history, adding those hints of possibility, so as to stand, looking forward or back, on the threshold.
Shirley Temple celebrated her eighth birthday at 20th Century Fox in 1936, when, in the middle of the Great Depression, she was the biggest box office star in America.
Alfred Eisenstaedt The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
Tears streamed down the cheeks of accordion-playing Chief Petty Officer (USN) Graham Jackson as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s flag-draped funeral train left Warm Springs, Ga., April 13, 1945
Ed Clark The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
As America began its move westward, Route 66, here shown in Seligman, Arizona in 1947, took on a special romance for those who yearned to strike out for adventure.
Andreas Feininger The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
Dr. Ernest Ceriani made a house call on foot, Kremmling, Colo., 1948. The generalist was the lone physician serving a Rocky Mountain enclave that covered 400 square miles.
W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock
Truck driver Robert Nuher and his family gathered around the television in 1949, at a time when screens first invaded the American living room. A new station had just debuted in the Nuhers’ hometown of Erie, Pa.
Five years after the end of World War II, American soldiers were fighting again, the time in Korea. Here Marine Capt. Francis “Ike” Fenton pondered his fate and the fate of his men after being told that his company was nearly out of ammunition, 1950.
David Douglas Duncan
The Golden Gate Bridge, photographed from a helicopter in 1952.
Disneyland opened in 1955 in Anaheim, Calif. Built on what had been 160 acres orange groves and walnut trees, Disneyland wasn’t the world’s first theme park, but it quickly became the standard by which others would be measured.
Billie Holiday, a singular jazz vocalist known for recordings of such songs as “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child,” performed at one of the late night jazz sessions hosted by LIFE photographer Gjon Mili. Holiday, raised partly in a Baltimore brothel and partly in a home for troubled girls, endured childhood sexual abuse and later became addicted to alcohol and heroin, before dying at age 44, in 1959.
President John F. Kennedy, after beginning his presidency with a speech that declared “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” celebrated with his wife Jacqueline at his Inaugural Ball.
U.S. Marines carried their wounded during a firefight near the southern edge of the DMZ, Vietnam, October 1966. Photographer Larry Burrows, whose images brought home to LIFE readers in full color the horrors taking place in Vietnam’s lush countryside, was killed along with three other photographers when their helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1971.
Larry Burrows/Life Pictures/Shutterstock
Football’s escalation in the American consciousness took a great leap forward in 1967, when Bart Starr led the Green Bay Packers to a win over the Kansas City Chiefs at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the first Super Bowl.
The 60s were defined by three assassinations: President John F. Kennedy, civil rights leader Martin Luther Kind, and Senator Robert Kennedy, who in 1968 was making his own run at president. After winning the California primary and giving a victory speech at L.A.’s Ambassador hotel, RFK was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Seventeen-year-old busboy Juan Romero, who had just shaken Kennedy’s hand, registered the shock of a nation.